This is not Confession – Purity Ring Interviewed

Purity Ring - Photo by Mikael Gregorsky

I have cracked Purity Ring in two. Sat at a restaurant table with them, half-eaten desserts before us – a gin and tonic sorbet taunts me – a worrying fault line has appeared. Tired and barely fed after a missed train from Paris, Megan [James, vocals] and Corin [Roddick, beats] are at loggerheads. “Of course we’re future pop…” says Corin. “By definition it inhabits the world ahead of us, we can’t pass it,” retorts Megan. “But I like the sound of nightmare pop!” “There is more than one type of ‘mare, Megan.” They see the look on my face and laugh. Light returns to the room. These are exciting times for fans of cross-pollinated pop weirdness. While 4AD label-mate Grimes has perverted chart and R&B tropes, forcing them through an ethereal hyperpop lens, Purity Ring have summoned a swirling, fantastical darkness with their debut album ‘Shrines’.

The surroundings of the restaurant are jarringly normal; it is bright and clean (and rumour has it Animal Collective are upstairs) with floor to ceiling windows. It’s a curious backdrop to Purity Ring who trade in tempestuousness and lyrics about witches and stitching new skin from the gory remains of others; metaphors for love and affection that resemble an abattoir floor. In person, though, Megan and Corin are lovely and quick to laugh. “The reality,” says Corin, warming to the nightmare/future pop dynamic, “is like mashing those two kinds of pop together…” Megan finishes: “We bring out the best in one another.” That best is a world painted in densely evocative lyrics and underpinned by beats that are complementary in their complexity. There are a lot of lazy comparisons with The Knife being bandied about (yes, it is the visual equivalent of crashes of light in the fog; yes, there are down-pitched, distorted vocals), but the only element they share is a thrilling iconoclasm with genre; if The Knife re-imagine Euro-pop through a dark lens, then Purity Ring do the same with hip hop.

Corin’s hip hop-inspired sonics may seem an odd fit for Megan’s fantastical lyrics, but he assures me there is little difference between the kind of fantasy worlds that Clams Casino, say, puts beats behind and Purity Ring’s. It’s just that Purity Ring’s fantasy world often focuses on witches. Megan looks like butter wouldn’t melt and yet her lyrics – intensely personal, grimly visceral – suggest a damaged psyche. She laughs at this; it is the boundary between fantasy and reality that Purity Ring explore. Crucially, as a propulsive force they are second to none, lurching between dense gloom and triumphant surge. That someone as young as Corin – Megan definitely plays the big sister to the 21-year-old, cajoling him in to speaking up when I compliment him – composes these rhythms and melodies is astounding.

All the more so when you consider how far apart Megan and Corin live – in Halifax and Montreal respectively; 1300km if you don’t want to go via the US – and although technology could expedite the process, they build the distance into what they do. The separateness factors into the growing of a song: Corin will cook up the instrumentals on his own – “Late nights, sometimes I’ll stare at my laptop for hours; sometimes I’ll take an idea, a five second snippet that I’ll run with over and over and over,” he explains – before it is sent to Megan. She points to my dictaphone lying on the table between us: “This kind of thing is how we work.” She’ll sing a rough sketch to the music and send it whizzing back. The anticipation of not knowing where Megan will take it provides a spark of excitement for Corin, who in turn will tweak the music, and meld the two together. Posting back and forth, maintaining the separation enables a newness and freshness to the ideas, and outcomes. I ask how often they see each other. “Apart from on tour, probably for a couple of weeks beforehand, when getting ready,” says Megan. “When we were recording ‘Shrines’ it was for longer, a lot more intense and intensive.” Corin smiles: “Yeah, because we needed to get the album done, and let’s say whilst we like to perfect things in the studio, we work best with a deadline.”

Their first song, Ungirthed, happened almost by accident: “We didn’t conceive of it as a long term thing, or even a project, it was just something to do. We were really happy with it though, and the response was amazing, and then the next tracks came together and we thought, hell, why don’t we make an album out of this.” The results are pop of the intensely exciting sort, shot through with the kind of hip hop inflected beats that wrap and engulf you, resulting in a sound that is by turns hypnotic and dread-filled. Purity Ring’s world is one of witches’ covens, dark mysterious beings, possession and the literal butchery of people. Perhaps incongruously, at heart it has a sense of child-like wonder, of struggling to take in a world that is as amazing as it is terrifying – acknowledging the fact that the good and bad that life throws at us must be dealt with. The song titles of ‘Shrines’, and the lyrics within it, are peppered with portmanteaus, lending an air of a private language described in a dialect of an ‘other’. Inviting us in, yet also separate and unknowable to us.

The characters ‘Shines’ envisions are not cowed, or awaiting rescue. They transform themselves; improve, protect and grow. Young girls aspire to be powerful witches, or risk defying them. They stitch together a new skin and make themselves anew in a kind of gory domesticity. I point out that there is only one explicit reference to men (_Ungirthed_’s looming ominous figures) and Megan interjects, laughing: “For the record I have never been ‘damaged’ by a relationship, I’ve never had a traumatic love.” ‘Shrines’s protagonists are strong female roles, experiencing and interacting with their world independently of men. I bring up some research I’ve read about puberty, that growing up for males has the characteristics of a temporary insanity, which surely must follow for women too, although we’ll never really know what goes on in one another’s heads. It is through combining the “intensely personal” with the fantastical that Megan achieves a kind of narrative that transcends the specific. Though lifted directly from her own journals, Megan’s lyrics are too poetic to be melodrama, too freshly penned to be dismissed as youthful histrionics.

We can all relate to the feel of madness if not the specific trigger – “This isn’t confession, I’m not pouring my heart out in a desperate plea to be heard and understood. It is just my thoughts and experiences as source material; it isn’t about me working through something,” explains Megan – yet the universal factor in the human condition is that defining itself thus causes a tectonic change to the psyche. Corin brightens the mood: “It is of course lovely to be on stage for sold-out crowds though, with people there to hear your music, and Megan’s lyrics.” She seems almost horrified at this: “It would have been weird, obscene of me, to envisage that what I wrote down in my journals was destined from the second I put pen to paper to be shared with a room of people, or pressed on to vinyl.” Though personal, the issues and themes they investigate are applicable to all of us, regardless of age or gender; Megan’s ultimately sings about – demonstrates – self-empowerment.

I suggest it is actually more of an honest grown-up image of the world they paint. One that may be child-like, but is simultaneously subversive. The band’s name itself is playfully redolent of a warped subversion of innocence and youth. For Purity Ring, too many people act like children are somehow in need of a watered down version of the world. What they conjure is in stark contrast to the mollycoddling of kids through bowdlerized Disney fairytales. More like the Brothers Grimm, or Roald Dahl even, there is an honesty to the ‘scary’ world they portray. While their characters sometimes meet bloody ends, their songs are delivered with a lightness of touch and strongly captivating aesthetic. A mischevious twinkle alights in Megan’s eye: “I have a niece who is four or five years old, my sister-in-law sends me videos of her dancing and singing to Lofticries, which is hilarious, because I mean it isn’t really kid-friendly in one sense. Quite often though, ‘protecting kids’ is a synonym for preventing them from experiencing. Our songs aren’t explicit, but they deal with adult or grown-up issues.” Through experience and adventure Purity Ring want to inspire a sense of awe at what you could become; ‘Shrines’s songs could almost be called existentialist fairytales.

Purity Ring have taken an almost old-fashioned approach to making music; coming up to two years together and they’re only just releasing their debut, after a slow drip-drip-drip of tracks often accompanied by esoteric imagery. I remark that their Tumblr, rather than being the usual stream-of-consciousness visual overload, is positively spartan. Is this all some elaborate anti-marketing campaign? Corin laughs: “We’re just busy getting on with it, we’re not tweeting all the time. Working the way we do isn’t always conducive to being prolific, and we’re kind of perfectionists.” ‘Shrines’ is an astoundingly accomplished and fully formed debut, each track works as a tale in its own right, but the whole hangs together wonderfully. “Well, that is another part of it. That we want to be an ‘album band’ or at least we want to get every track right, we want each thing we release to be as good as everything else. What is the point in flooding out music that doesn’t satisfy us? Or worse, let’s the listeners down?”

Purity Ring have an intense dedication to getting everything right. The cohesiveness of their album is a feeling they’ve also transferred to the live show. Later that evening I descend into the basement of Madame JoJos and ask Megan if she knows the history of the venue, of Soho. “But that just adds another layer to it all, doesn’t it?” she cackles when I tell her. The stage is flanked by Corin’s homemade hybrid musical kit/lighting – a series of Chinese lanterns that pulse and breath with the music and a bass drum elevated and eerily lit. Megan, in hand-stitched dress, stalks the stage. Like some gothic Lolita ringmaster she commands us, fully immersing the audience in her dark, intoxicating world. We’re viewing the inner workings of a dark mechanical initiation rite, by turns pulled taut by stabs of melody and hypnotised by Megan’s peculiar siren song. She strikes the bass drum, and invites us into the cult of the Purity Ring.

This piece first appeared in Dummy on 6 July 2012

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